Before setting up her cruise business in Tarpon Springs, Suzanne Upchurch and her business partner traveled the entire west coast of Florida looking for the perfect spot.
They had a cruise and ferry business in Massachusetts where they did history and lighthouse tours, and they were looking for a place where they could operate during the winter.
“We went through Tarpon Springs, all of the way to Key West,” Upchurch said.
They came back to Tarpon Springs because that’s where their boat — the Island Star — had been built, and they felt at home with the Anclote Key lighthouse and the nearby power plant.
The lighthouse had the same structural form as the lighthouse in Marblehead, Massachusetts, Upchurch explained. And, the power plant is a replica of the one in Salem, Massachusetts.
Their company, Sun Line Cruises, started operating seasonally in Florida 14 years ago. They brought with them the historical and lighthouse tours as well as ferry service.
“Of course, the season is much shorter up there,” Upchurch said. “It gets cold real fast up there.”
She decided to come to Tarpon Springs seasonally to break into an area with something that was not being offered, Upchurch said. As it turns out, they decided to offer eco-tours, which Upchurch thoroughly enjoys because she said it allows her to share her love of nature.
People who take her cruises can count on an affordable trip, which combines the pleasure of gliding across water and having a chance to learn about the area’s history and its marine life. Sometimes Upchurch narrates the trip. Other times, the Florida naturalist or marine biologist on her staff does the honors.
Their goal is to give their passengers an enjoyable and informative experience, said Kathy Poreda, who sells cruise tickets from a colorful shack at 18 Dodecanese Blvd., in Tarpon Springs.
Patrons boarding the Island Star hail from all over the world, said Aaron Kalwa, one of the ship’s captains. The company’s website gets hits from places such as Ukraine and Belgium, Upchurch said.
A couple of years ago, a woman from Chicago rushed up to the ticket window and exclaimed, “We found you,” Upchurch recalled. The woman’s doctor had recommended the cruise after learning the customer was planning a visit to Tarpon Springs.
Virtually every ride offers passengers a chance to see an assortment of winged creatures, such as roseate spoonbills, terns, ospreys, egrets and pelicans. They also hear about mangrove systems, fresh springs, the estuary’s role as a marine nursery, and the history of the Anclote Key lighthouse.
The tour also includes commentary about the history of Tarpon Springs and its sponge docks, marine repair work, shipbuilding, and fishing industry.
Every cruise, however, is unique. On a March 2 outing, for instance, a passenger saw something strange floating on the water, said Kalwa, who was steering the ship that day.
“We were on our way out of Anclote River,” he said. “As soon as we got out to St. Joseph’s Sound, a passenger pointed out something floating in the water. We stopped to get a better look at it, and it looked it was a turtle having some distress, struggling.
“It was a real busy day that day and it was in the middle of the channel, so we had to stop the boat. We were scared that he was going to get hit by other boats. So, we stopped the boat, kind of protected him,” Kalwa said.
The ship’s first mate was able to get close, but she was unable to lift the turtle into the boat. So Kalwa, who has a burly build, had the first mate steer the boat, while he grabbed the turtle and pulled it aboard.
It was no easy feat. The green sea turtle, given the name Bubba Gump, weighed nearly 60 pounds.
The cruise company called the Clearwater Marine Aquarium who picked up the turtle and nursed it back to health. Bubba Gump was released into the Gulf of Mexico from Honeymoon Island on July 8.
Sun Line Cruises offers a 90-minute cruise, a two-hour cruise, sunset cruises, group tours, weddings, special events and sea scatterings.
The two-hour cruise makes a half-hour stop at Anclote Key, which is the northernmost barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We do a lot of school group tours. We have a marine science club. It’s set up for different age groups,” Upchurch said. Topics include marine and mammals, sharks and stingrays, and tsunamis and hurricanes.
As Kalwa carries passengers from the dock in Tarpon Springs out to Anclote Key and back, the ship captain gets a kick out of seeing guests get excited when they spot dolphins leaping out of the water or watch manatees glide by.
During a recent cruise, passengers got a thrill when they saw a single dolphin surfacing during the early part of their cruise, and then saw the telltale fins of a small group of dolphins on the way back.
They made their way from one side of the boat to the other, trying to capture the moment on their smartphones.
Besides having ticket prices that are under $20, Sun Line Cruises also rewards repeat customers through a frequent cruiser program.
“Each time you visit us, we put a sticker on your card,” Upchurch said, noting visitors can only receive one sticker per visit regardless of the size of their party.
“At last count, we had 670 full frequent cruiser cards turned in,” Upchurch said. “We have one particular couple who is on their seventh frequent cruiser card.”
If you go …
WHAT: Sun Line Cruises trips
WHERE: 18 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs
CRUISES: Combination Sea Fari and Island Adventure Cruises, sail weekdays with weather permitting, at 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.
Sea Fari Adventure Cruises sail weekends at 11:45 a.m.
Island Adventure Cruises sail weekends with weather permitting at 1:15 p.m. and 3:15 p.m.
Sunset cruises sail on Saturday and Sunday evenings. Departure times vary by season. Call for departure times and reservations.
COST: $16 for adults, $15 for senior citizens and $9 for children for Sea Fari; $20 for adults, $19 for seniors, and $10 for children for Island Adventure; $18 for adults and $12 for children for Sunset Cruises
Published July 30, 2014
See this story in print: Click Here